Fierce fighting in Pakistan continues

Officials backing down from speculation that aide to bin Laden is trapped

March 21, 2004|By Liz Sly | Liz Sly,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WANA, Pakistan - On a remote, dusty plain dotted with mud fortresses and ringed by steep mountains, Pakistani soldiers are waging their fiercest battle yet in the war against al-Qaida and the Taliban.

At least 100 prisoners have been taken, and casualties are mounting after five days of fighting between 7,000 Pakistani troops and an estimated 400 to 500 Pashtun tribesmen and suspected foreign militants that showed no sign of abating yesterday.

Pakistani officials are backing down from speculation that senior al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is among the fighters hunkered down in a cluster of fortified mud-brick compounds west of Wana, the administrative capital of the semiautonomous tribal agency of South Waziristan.

Instead, officials said, it appears that soldiers who set out Tuesday to detain three tribesmen suspected of helping al-Qaida fugitives stumbled into a stronghold of al-Qaida-allied Central Asian militants.

"They are extremely professional fighters for whom life is meaningless," Lt. Gen. Safdar Hussain, commander of Pakistan's army forces in the border area, told journalists flown into the area by the Pakistani military yesterday. In 29 previous operations, "we have never encountered this kind of resistance."

The remote region of South Waziristan, bordering Afghanistan and inhabited by fiercely conservative Pashtun tribes, has long been regarded as al-Qaida territory, a sanctuary for the remnants of the network that fled the U.S.-led onslaught against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

Continued fierce resistance by the encircled militants means it is likely they are protecting "a high-value target," Hussain said. Radio communications intercepted by Pakistani forces suggest the fugitive is more likely to be a Chechen or Uzbek than an Arab, he said.

It is also possible that a senior leader escaped on the first day of the fighting, when a black sport utility vehicle stormed past local paramilitaries as they moved into the area, officials said. Two vehicles accompanying the SUV were later found destroyed and abandoned, but the black vehicle, with darkened windows, got away.

Subsequent radio intercepts, also in Central Asian languages, suggested that an "important person" had been wounded in the getaway, Hussain said.

"The intercepts said that the gentleman is wounded and it would require four people to handle him and 11 or 12 to protect him," Hussain said. "It was somebody important."

Hussain described the speculation surrounding al-Zawahiri as "conjecture" prompted by the fierce resistance encountered by Pakistani soldiers.

Officials won't say how many soldiers have been killed so far, but it is believed the army has suffered heavy casualties. At least 34 Pakistani soldiers have been reported killed by local newspapers, and unconfirmed reports say 12 more are missing and are perhaps being held hostage by the militants. The army says it has killed at least 24 militants, although it says it has no information about their nationalities.

The push into the tribal areas carries risks for Pakistan's government, and Islamic opposition parties called yesterday for demonstrations to protest the army's offensive. There were also reports yesterday that 13 civilians were killed when Pakistani soldiers fired on five vehicles attempting to break the army siege, something likely to further inflame tribal hostility against the government.

U.S. officials have applauded Pakistan's recent push into South Waziristan. Osama bin Laden on several occasions has been reported hiding in the area, though there is no suggestion that he is in the vicinity of this battle.

A number of fighters belonging to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a radical Islamic group that had close relations with the Taliban regime and with al-Qaida, are known to be hiding in the area.

Al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian doctor who was instrumental in plotting the Sept. 11 attacks, had also been reported in the area, and Hussain did not rule out the possibility that he is still somewhere in the tribal agency.

The general said he plans to deploy more Pakistani troops to the region in light of "maturing intelligence" that there are other locations where wanted militants may be hiding. "I don't want to forewarn them, but these people are there," he said.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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